In recent years, a new generation of iconic Asian actors and creatives have made a name for themselves in Hollywood. There’s Awkwafina (who landed on everyone’s radar thanks to roles in Ocean's 8 and Crazy Rich Asians), Star Wars’ Kelly Marie Tran, and Lana Condor, who starred in Netflix’s hit trilogy To All The Boys — to name a few. However, despite these ladies finding success in Hollywood, a recent study from USC Annenberg revealed that out of all of Hollywood’s top 100 films of 2019, 55 of them were still missing Asian or Asian-American girls or women. And further studies show the lack of diversity in Hollywood isn’t just limited to the exclusion of Asians, but other underrepresented groups as well like the Black community and LGBTQ groups.
When speaking to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Asian Americans in Hollywood, Jeff Yang, the co-author of Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now, acknowledged the many hard-fought journeys Asian actors have experienced. “Over the past 30 years, we’ve risen from invisibility to some level of relevance,” he said. Cinema has a longstanding history — one that dates far past the ’90s — of hiding Asian actors in the shadows. Merle Oberon, for example, an Oscar-nominated movie star from the 1930s, had to conceal her Indian identity until 2002, representing how Asian performers have long been forced to tuck away aspects of themselves that didn’t conform to Hollywood’s traditional standards of whiteness.
But now, in 2021, Yang claims this discrimination and othering will no longer be accepted or normalized. “We’re feeling our oats a little in our ability to push back on representation that feels false. We are starting to gain the ability to shape our own stories,” said Yang. As everyone continues to support the AAPI community through activism and education, there’s no better time than now to also recount the history and wins of some legendary Asian performers in Hollywood. Below, TZR rounded up a few trailblazers, from past and present, you should know. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a starting point in celebrating some of the cinematic achievements of Asian actors in films and television shows.
Iconic Asian Actors: Anna May Wong
Anna May Wong was the first Chinese-American movie star and was one of the most well-known faces to emerge from the Golden Age of Hollywood. (This period was defined as between 1915 and 1963). In 1922, when Wong was 17, she starred in The Toll of The Sea, and it’s now considered as her breakthrough role. She went on to appear in films like Shanghai Express, Piccadilly, and Daughter of Shanghai. Wong was also known for her impeccable fashion taste, and in 1934, the Mayfair Mannequin Society of New York voted her as the ‘world’s best-dressed woman,’ according to Time magazine.
Despite all this, Wong did point out the discrimination she, as well as other Asians, faced in the film industry. “I was so tired of the parts I had to play,” said Wong in an interview with journalist Doris Mackie in 1931. “Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain — murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass. We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilization that is so many times older than the West?”
Iconic Asian Actors: Sandra Oh
Sandra Oh shot to fame when she landed the role of Dr. Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy. (Prior to the medical drama, Oh starred in supporting roles in popular films like Princess Diaries and Sideways). As Dr. Yang, the Korean actor was nominated five years in a row for an Emmy and won a Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actress in a Series in 2005. Eventually, after 10 seasons on Grey’s Anatomy, Oh’s character hung up her white coat and went on to play the titular role of agent Eve Polastri in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Killing Eve.
Her role in the British comedy-drama led to heaps of critical acclaim, including a Golden Globe win for Best Actress in a TV Drama in 2019. Oh was the first Asian woman to win in that category in almost 39 years and she was also the first person of Asian descent to host the Golden Globes that year. During her opening monologue at the award show that night, Oh said, “I said yes to the fear of being on this stage tonight because I wanted to be here to look out into this audience and witness this moment of change. Right now, this moment is real. Trust me, it is real. Because I see you and I see you — all of these faces of change — and now so will everyone else.”
Iconic Asian Actors: Mindy Kaling
Mindy Kaling is a woman of many talents. In addition to playing the dramatic yet lovable character Kelly Kapoor on The Office, Kaling served as a series writer on the show from 2005 to 2013. She was responsible for the tear-jerking, Emmy-nominated episode where the characters Jim and Pam get married at Niagara Falls. After the comedy series, Kaling embarked on another television adventure where she developed and starred in The Mindy Project. The Indian-American actor has also starred in the films Late Night, Ocean's 8, and A Wrinkle in Time.
For those seeking to watch a current project of Kaling’s, stream Never Have I Ever. The show draws on her own personal experiences of high school and follows the character Devi — a 15-year-old daughter of immigrants from India — on the hunt for a boyfriend. “Like a lot of comedy writers, I think of my adolescence and childhood as incredibly embarrassing," Kaling said to NPR. “I thought it would honestly be too painful and embarrassing to relive those experiences.” However, once her team of writers, which were made up of young Indian women, began sharing their own stories, Kaling’s perspective changed. “It ended up being very cathartic, actually,” she said. “It made me feel that all the stuff I was going through as a teenager, I was not alone.” When Kaling’s not taking on both the big and small screen, she shares her go-to recipes and home decor tips on Instagram.
Iconic Asian Actors: Priyanka Chopra
The Indian actor, singer, and film producer is one of the most well-known stars to emerge out of Bollywood. After winning Miss World in 2000 (she was the fifth Indian contestant to ever take home the crown), Chopra moved on to acting where she quickly became a breakout star. Chopra’s filmography includes a starring role on ABC's Quantico, as the mother Aditi Chaudhary in The Sky Is Pink, and as Victoria Leeds in the 2017 remake of Baywatch. For a more personal look into the actor’s life off-screen, keep up with Chopra on Instagram where she frequently shares her makeup looks and manicure trends.
Iconic Asian Actors: Youn Yuh-jung
Youn Yuh-jung began acting in South Korea at the age of 23. Her 50-year-long career spans from a breakthrough role in Kim Ki-young’s 1971 film Woman of Fire to her recent portal of Soon-ja in director Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari. (She was the director’s only pick for the role!) Her performance as the feisty grandmother in the touching film won her a Best Supporting Actress award at the 2021 Oscars. That night, she became the first Korean and second Asian actor to ever win the accolade.
“When we were making [Minari], I just knew internally that what [Youn] was doing is masterful,” said Chung in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “I hoped people would take notice.” The work doesn’t stop for Youn, who is already filming another movie. She will be in an Apple TV+ series adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko. The book shines a light on the Korean-American experience as it follows four generations of a Korean family through their immigration to Japan and then eventually to the United States.
Iconic Asian Actors: Freida Pinto
Freida Pinto was born and raised in Mumbai, and you’ll likely recognize her from her performance in Danny Boyle’s critically acclaimed 2008 film, Slumdog Millionaire. For those who’ve not yet seen the movie, you can watch it on Prime Video. After her portrayal of Latika in the film, Pinto was quickly catapulted to fame and was viewed as one of India’s greatest breakthrough stars at the time. Since then, Pinto has starred in films like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Love Sonia, and Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.
Iconic Asian Actors: Merle Oberon
In 1935, Merle Oberon became the first actor of Indian descent to be nominated for an Oscar for her role as Kitty Vane in the movie The Dark Angel. And while her award was a history-making achievement, the significance of her Oscar nomination remained a well-kept industry secret for decades. Despite being born in Mumbai to an Indian mother and a British father in 1933, film executives and producers instructed Oberon to claim she grew up in Australia, effectively hiding her race and ethnicity from the public. Oberon’s filmography includes films like The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Wuthering Heights.
A 2002 documentary about the Hollywood star entitled The Trouble With Merle highlighted and revealed Oberon’s true backstory. “In the movies at that time, a woman of mixed race was not acceptable. The racism of the period made it very explicit: Merle’s Anglo-Indian background was a major obstacle to her becoming a star,” said the documentary’s director Marée Delofski in her notes on the film.
Iconic Asian Actors: Michelle Yeoh
Malaysian actor Michelle Yeoh rose to fame due to her roles in action films like the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies and the martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the 1990s. In contrast to her many roles in high-stakes action flicks, recently she’s appeared in rom-com movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Last Christmas.
Throughout her career, Yeoh has repeatedly advocated for more well-developed and versatile roles for Asian women in cinema. “There are these fragile characters, and we need to be able to show them. But what is important is that, during the course of the film, the image of the fragile, stereotypical woman is broken. [They] need to learn to be stronger,” said the actor while appearing on a panel during the Singapore International Film Festival in 2015. “I think what we try to destroy is the image that Asian women are consistently like that. Because if you look around, that is definitely not true.”
Iconic Asian Actors: Shay Mitchell
Like countless other Canadian stars, including Nina Dobrev and Drake, Shay Mitchell got her debut on the teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation. From there, the Filipina star went on to star in Pretty Little Liars as Emily Fields, one of the core four roles in the cult-favorite drama series. During this time of PLL she was nominated for several awards, including Choice Summer TV Star — Female at the 2014 Teen Choice Awards and Favorite Cable TV Actress at the 2016 People’s Choice Awards. She won a Young Hollywood Award back in 2011. Recently, you may have seen Mitchell star as Peach Salinger in Netflix’s You. When the actor isn’t busy filming, she’s active on Instagram and frequently shows off her on-trend beauty looks and cute videos of her son.
Iconic Asian Actors: Kelly Marie Tran
Born in the United States to Vietnamese parents, Kelly Marie Tran starred in short films and one-off characters on TV series before finding a solid footing in Hollywood. Her big break came when she was casted as Rose Tico in the 2017 film Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Tran became the first Asian-American woman and first woman of color to play a lead in the entire Star Wars franchise. That same year, Tran also became the first Asian woman to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair when she was photographed for the publication’s summer 2017 issue. Though these accolades reflected the prominent work Tran had done, it didn’t come without trolls. In fact, the racist and sexist comments to her being casted in Star Wars was so hateful, Tran deleted all her Instagram posts.
“It wasn’t their words, it’s that I started to believe them,” she said in an essay for The New York Times. “Their words seemed to confirm what growing up as a woman and a person of color already taught me: that I belonged in margins and spaces, valid only as a minor character in their lives and stories.” Though the actor’s Instagram account is still available, she has not yet posted anything. Tran has bigger fish to fry, however, as she most recently played the protagonist Raya in Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon. During the film’s virtual red carpet premiere, she wore a traditional Vietnamese áo dài by designer Thai Nguyen that paid homage to her culture. “I know that I now belong to a small group of privileged people who get to tell stories for a living, stories that are heard and seen and digested by a world that for so long has tasted only one thing. I know how important that is. And I am not giving up,” she wrote in The New York Times.
Iconic Asian Actors: Lana Condor
The 24-year-old actor’s breakthrough role was playing Lara Jean Covey in Netflix’s popular rom-com trilogy To All The Boys. The movies were adapted from the best-selling YA books by Jenny Han, who fought to have an Asian actor play the main role in the films. The first movie, To All the Boys I've Loved Before, centered on a biracial Korean-American girl as the romantic lead. In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, Condor, who is Vietnamese and was adopted by an American family, said: “Anyone can fall in love. It doesn’t have to be what we’re used to in mainstream media . . . Obviously, we’re making a lot of great leaps and bounds, but when I was growing up, you really only saw one specific person being given the opportunity to fall in love on camera, and they were typically white.”
Since gaining worldwide recognition as Lara Jean, Condor has centered herself as a champion for Asian representation in Hollywood. “I’m 100 percent Asian, and I’m also 100 percent American. That’s something that I’m really trying to let people understand,” she explained in a Teen Vogue interview. “My Asian-American experience is different from someone else’s Asian-American experience, and that’s OK. There are moments when I feel that people don’t think that I’m Asian enough because I was adopted by an American family. To me, that’s so silly!” In 2020, Condor won the Next Generation of Hollywood award from The Hollywood Critics Association.
Iconic Asian Actors: Awkwafina
Nora Lum, known professionally as Awkwafina, rose to prominence when her song “My Vag” became popular on YouTube in 2012. However, her breakthrough roles on-screen came with starring in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians. From there, her acting career took off with film credits including The Farewell, Jumanji: The Next Level, and Raya and the Last Dragon. She even has her own hit show, based off her own life, called Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens. When searching for writers for the show, Awkwafina revealed to Variety that she wanted writers who could really speak to growing up in New York and from the Asian-American experience. “When we were looking for writers, there was kind of a belief that they just weren’t out there, but it’s bullsh*t,” she said. “They’re out there, and I saw a lot of them.”
Iconic Asian Actors: Constance Wu
You’ll recognize Wu in shows like Fresh Off the Boat and from box-office hits like Crazy Rich Asians and Hustlers. The 2018 rom-com film garnered her worldwide praise, including a nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical at the 2019 Golden Globes. At the time, Wu was the first Asian woman in 44 years to be named in that category. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter about Crazy Rich Asians, Wu said, “Nobody has really talked about [Asian-American-led stories] that much, because we’ve always been around as a sort of ‘diversity check box,’ but it’s so rewarding to lead a story that is really a cultural touchstone, that is so hugely important for the self-worth and meaningfulness of a lot of Asian American and Asian kids all over the world where their story is not the dominant culture’s story.” Over the years, Wu has been vocal on numerous topics like whitewashing in Hollywood and male privilege.
Iconic Asian Actors: Lucy Liu
Lucy Liu needs no introduction. As one of the three iconic women of Charlie’s Angels, Liu has remained a powerful force within Hollywood since she first rose to fame in the early aughts. In an April 2021 op-ed for The Washington Post, the Chinese-American actor reflected on the impact her Charlie’s Angels role had on viewers while also acknowledging the film industry has a long way to go in terms of Asian representation. “As part of something so iconic, my character Alex Munday [in Charlie’s Angels] normalized Asian identity for a mainstream audience and made a piece of Americana a little more inclusive,” she wrote. “I feel fortunate to have ‘moved the needle’ a little with some mainstream success, but it is circumscribed, and there is still much further to go. Progress in advancing perceptions on race in this country is not linear; it’s not easy to shake off nearly 200 years of reductive images and condescension.”
Liu’s other acting credits include Kill Bill: Volume 1 and Chicago. She has also made a name for herself on the small screen by starring in the Sherlock Holmes-themed spin-off show, Elementary, and the American dark comedy-drama Why Women Kill.